Has anyone seen Congress lately? If anyone has any information about the whereabouts of the congressional GOP agenda, please contact the authorities immediately. Because with Speaker Paul Ryan headed for the bliss of early retirement and President Trump doing whatever it is he does all day instead of presidenting, the odds of meaningful legislation coming out of this Congress are plummeting by the hour.
Republicans are conducting a genuinely audacious experiment in non-governance. Since the passage of their unpopular tax cut in December, the GOP hasn't accomplished a single thing of note, and seems to be operating on the premise that anything they or their donors actually want to do will be received so poorly by voters that it might further endanger their already-vulnerable majorities in both chambers. The plan seems to be to take a knee (irony alert!), wind down the clock, and hope that the economy delivers them another two years of power.
That plan is leading to unprecedented inertia in Congress. An organization called Govtrack maintains data on legislation passed since the founding of the republic. While there is a long gap from 1875 to 1973, cobbling together numbers from other sources makes it clear that all of these Congresses were significantly more productive than today's. The last Congress to enact fewer than 250 laws was the 35th, from 1857 to 1859 — on the eve of the Civil War. Thus far the 115th Congress is averaging a nose over 10 bills passed and signed by the president per month. That pace would just barely get this group over 250, meaning they have a real chance at being the least productive legislature since the 32nd, from 1851 to 1853.
It is important to keep in mind that we are talking about a Republican Party that has unified control of Washington, D.C., with majorities in both chambers of Congress, control of the presidency, and a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court. Compare that to the 32nd Congress, which was controlled by Democrats while President Millard Fillmore was a member of the soon-to-be-extinct Whig Party.
This Congress is now a lock to be the laziest unified government since the 30th Congress from 1845 to 1847, under Democratic President James Polk. And if we are looking only at modern history, say the post-WWII period, this GOP is almost mind-bogglingly unproductive, and will push through maybe half the number of bills that recent unified governments have managed.
Republicans might reply that just counting the number of statutes enacted doesn't mean anything, particularly because the GOP generally seeks fewer laws and regulations as well as a smaller role for the federal government overall. Maybe that would be fine if America was an untroubled realm. But does this seem like a country with no problems to you? President Trump campaigned for his office on the premise that the country needed a radical overhaul to become "great again." His inaugural speech was distinctly wartime, in both substance and tone, and spoke of a national emergency. Remember the carnage-filled streets of our cities? The way that America was being abused by its allies and shafted in international trade deals?
One would think that the rolling crisis the president has been yapping about nonstop might be amenable to solutions bolder than a lone giveaway to rich people and corporations and some half-hearted, thus far unsuccessful efforts to renegotiate America's terms of trade and alliance policies. Stay with me for a second, but it's almost as if neither President Trump nor his allies ever actually believed their own apocalyptic rhetoric about the condition of the country. It was all part of the grift.
But there is more at stake here than dragging the GOP. A more vigorous, engaged Congress would also do much to rein in the "administrative state" that Republicans despised so much until January 2017. Throughout this century, the out-party has fretted about the growth of executive power and the development of the so-called "imperial presidency." Yet Congress has repeatedly done little to restore the balance between the executive and legislative branches since the post-Watergate era.
More than simply doing nothing, this Congress has completed the transformation of America's national legislatures into a pair of bodies that spend most of their time futzing around uselessly with the margins of executive power — approving appointments, holding hearings, rubber-stamping judicial nominees, grandstanding, and of course, endlessly campaigning. The retreat of Congress from any serious lawmaking initiatives, let alone from genuine oversight of the executive branch's activities, invites another round of overreach and the further diminution of the role the founders envisioned for Congress. As Bowdoin College's Andrew Rudalevige has argued, "Presidential power, in a real sense, is the residual left over after subtracting out the power of other actors in the system." Since the beginning of 2017, the other actors in the American political system have largely been Republicans, with the only real pushback coming from congressional minorities, previously appointed judges, and other figures within the executive branch. Congress has basically taken itself out of the equation altogether.
The Republican-held Congress remains on the sidelines, both in terms of the policies emanating out of the executive branch, and also in passing any legislation whatsoever that might offer guidance to federal agencies. Moreover, they have proven that any concerns that they had about Barack Obama's use of executive orders was pure politics all the way down. If Republicans were serious about their administrative state bloviating, they would actually do something about it beyond allowing the president to place unqualified hacks into positions of executive authority.
Don't hold your breath on that one. For now, America is not just ungovernable, but ungoverned. And eventually Republicans will be held accountable for this behavior by voters who expect more from government than tweets and tirades.